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How Duke women’s basketball’s unprecedented offseason could be a blessing in disguise

Junior Celeste Taylor is one of a handful of transfers on this year's Duke roster.
Junior Celeste Taylor is one of a handful of transfers on this year's Duke roster.

Whatever the opposite of a Christmas miracle is happened to Duke Dec. 25, 2020.

In a huge shock to the rest of the NCAA, the Blue Devils announced that after four games, they would be canceling the remainder of their season due to COVID-19 concerns. Though the entirety of the Ivy League and a slew of other Division I programs opted out of the 2020-21 basketball season for the same reason, Duke was by far the most high-profile program to do so.

Having competed in 23 of the 25 NCAA tournaments prior to last season’s cancellation, Duke was poised for a decent, if not slightly underwhelming, season, yet posted a respectable 3-1 start in what was supposed to be new head coach Kara Lawson’s first campaign. The sole communication to the press about the program’s decision to forego the rest of the year came from Michael Schoenfeld, the University’s chief communications officer.

“We support their decision, as we have supported the choices made by all student-athletes at Duke during this unprecedented time," Schoenfeld said. “Duke will maintain our current schedule of competition in other sports and will continue to observe our rigorous health and safety protocols.”

Lots of things have been canceled or suspended over the past year and a half due to concerns over COVID-19, but one thing that wasn’t canceled in late 2020, at least by the NCAA, was basketball.

After a one year absence, the NCAA tournament returned in March 2021, conferences held tournaments before then and the various programs around the country prepared themselves for a full season. As collegiate athletics’ governing body saw it, basketball was back.

Ten months after Duke’s announcement, and yet another winter of Blue Devil basketball is approaching. Even in spite of the incremental erring toward normalcy, the women’s team enters this season with a new roster, new(ish) coach and blank slate upon which to build. In other words, the lead-up to this season has been anything but normal for Duke.

For starters, “on our team this year, it’s a small number of returners,” Lawson said. “I’d have to go through [it] in my head… I think five, so it’s obviously a minority on our team in terms of the number of players that we work with daily.”

On the men’s side of college basketball, it’s not uncommon to see huge swaths of a program change in and out each year, but in the women’s game, players usually stay for longer and the in-out switch is less frequent. From last year’s roster, only sophomore Vanessa de Jesus, senior Miela Goodchild, senior Onome Akinbode-James, graduate student Jade Williams and senior Jiselle Havas remain with the program.

“We spent a lot of time with each other in training and drills in the spring,” Lawson said. “All five of those players have improved a lot. I definitely admire them for being able to stay focused even though there weren't any games at the end of the week.”

Among the new faces are transfers Celeste Taylor (Texas), Imani Lewis (Wisconsin) and Elizabeth Balogun (Louisville), all of whom posted exceptional 2020-21 seasons and will be entering the program as experienced names and certified leaders. It already seems like this team is picking up right where it left off and that the new faces are jelling nicely with their new teammates, new coaches and new home.

“Honestly, I love every player on my team,” Taylor said. “I’m just really excited to get in a game with anybody. Whoever it is that is in the game with me, I’m just excited to play with them and learn with them and grow with them.”

“I’m big on talk, I’m big on encouraging my teammates and I’m big on support,” Lewis added. “So I think for me, with the three years I’ve played so far I think I can take that leadership and put it onto my teammates. Just give them the encouragement they need because we’re all new so it’s about building relationships and supporting one another so we can have success on the court.”

That last bit is key this season: success on the court. Duke, a storied and historically strong program was robbed of a chance at success last season. A year later, now it has the chance to make up for lost time.

“I think everyone is excited to play,” Lawson said. “We obviously have a lot of new faces, [are] excited to compete and there’s a lot of good teams on the schedule, so I think there’s just a lot of anticipation for the year and our games. We’re all looking forward to it.”

As the saying goes, distance makes the heart grow fonder. Except, in this case, replace “distance” with “time without basketball,” “the heart” with “passion” and “fonder” with “stronger.” Duke’s student body is just as anxious for a return to Cameron Indoor Stadium as the players are, and this synergy should prove to be one of the Blue Devils’ greatest strengths going into the winter.

“I think they’re excited for this year and looking forward to playing in front of fans,” Lawson said.

On Lawson’s end, the loss of a season last year seems much more of a blessing than a curse. She has a clean slate to form the program the way she wants to, a wealth of talented stars and more time than other coaches to build locker room culture and foster team chemistry.

“[The players] were here in the summer together, most of them,” Lawson said. “Spending time with one another, having team outings, talking about the importance of [team chemistry]. I think that has helped with them getting to know each other.”

The college basketball landscape really is Duke’s oyster this year and the program comes into the season confident, stocked with options, cohesive and ready to compete. While the reasoning for canceling the majority of last season was unfortunate and universal, it appears to have been a blessing in disguise—a chance for the team to get to know each other, its new coach and the system it hopes to play.

Amid the creatures and figures of Greek mythology, perhaps none is more emblematic of Duke than the phoenix, rising from the ashes of a burned 2020-21 season with a new roster, new attitude and new ethos. It has nobody to prove wrong, only itself to prove right and more than enough talent to do so.

Welcome back, Blue Devils. Here’s to seeing how high this phoenix can fly.

Editor's note: This article is one of many in The Chronicle's women's basketball season preview. Find the rest here.

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